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The migration-displacement nexus

By Khalid Koser

International Migrants Day is intended to celebrate the enormous contribution that migrants make to economic growth and development, social innovation, and cultural diversity worldwide. It also reminds us of the importance of protecting the human rights of migrants.

But recognizing these rights and realizing these opportunities has become harder in recent years because of the increasing complexity of migration, the difficulties of distinguishing different types of migrants, and the misalignment between existing categories and migration realities.

According to the UN, there are over 232 million international migrants in the world today, comprising around one in every 33 people. Not only is the scale of migration increasing, so too is its diversity. More women than ever before are migrating, and often as the breadwinners for their families. Migrants come from, go to, and transit, almost every country in the world, and over half the world’s migrants move between countries of the Global South. There are internal and international migrants; migrants who leave their homes willingly and those that are forced away by conflict; some who move permanently while others return home; those who move legally and those who do not.

Swearing In Day

There is diversity even within single categories of migration. Irregular migrants, for example, are also described as illegal, undocumented, and unauthorized. For some their lack of legal status arises because they move without authorization, while for others it is a result of staying and working without authorization. Still others are the victims of the separate crimes of migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

Distinguishing between these various migrant types has also become less straightforward. Migrating from the countryside to the city often precedes international migration. Most migrants – even refugees – exert at least some decision-making in their movement; in reality most people move for mixed motivations, including economic, political, and social factors. Legal migrants can transform into irregular migrants overnight for example by overstaying a visa. Migrant smuggling can easily transform into human trafficking.

Yet policy makers still tend to use old classification systems that do not reflect the new realities of migration. People are designated by where displacement takes place. While international migration has attracted enormous political attention in recent years, internal migration is rarely on the political agenda, despite being numerically far more significant at a global scale. Individuals are also delineated by the causes of movement. The strong international framework for refugees, for example, is not matched for economic migrants. Another distinction is on the basis of time, distinguishing for example short-term or temporary migrants from long-term or permanent migrants.

To a significant extent research on migration also reflects these classifications, with separate courses, research centers, and academic journals devoted to migration and refugees respectively. Oxford University Press for example publishes the Journal of Refugee Studies, the International Journal of Refugee Law, Refugee Survey Quarterly; but also Migration Studies.

Yet it has become increasingly clear that drawing careful lines between categories of migrants hinders rather than facilitates achieving their rights and promoting their potential. Is it reasonable to deport all irregular migrants even if some may face persecution at home? Is it possible to take advantage of the skills of refugees in the labor market, even if they have arrived for safety rather than work? Is there a case for legalizing irregular migrants if they have already lived and worked in a country for years? What happens when migrants get caught up in conflict or natural disasters and are displaced in the countries where they are working?

As the editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies I am acutely aware of the need to maintain the journal’s commitment to raising awareness, promoting debate, and publishing original research on refugees, whose number has increased by millions this year as a result of the crisis in Syria. At the same time refugees can no longer be studied exclusively, or outside a wider context. In addition to over two million Syrians forced from their country as refugees, there are as many as 6.5 million displaced internally. There are expectations that millions of people around the world may be forced from their homes in years to come by the effects of climate change, but they are not legally recognized as refugees. Increasingly refugees move alongside other migrants, for example in boats crossing the Mediterranean or heading for Australia. It is important therefore to understand that refugees co-exist and overlap with other displaced and mobile populations, and that solutions to their plight may sometimes lie in learning lessons from these other situations.

Khalid Koser is Deputy Director and Academic Dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and Editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies.

Oxford University Press presents a free online collection of content from Migration Studies and the Journal of Refugee Studies in order to raise awareness of International Migrants Day on 18 December 2013.

Journal of Refugee Studies provides a forum for exploration of the complex problems of forced migration and national, regional and international responses. The Journal covers all categories of forcibly displaced people. Contributions that develop theoretical understandings of forced migration, or advance knowledge of concepts, policies and practice are welcomed from both academics and practitioners. Journal of Refugee Studies is a multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal, and is published in association with the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

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Image credit: Canada Day swearing-in ceremony for new citizens. By stacey_newman via iStockphoto.

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